The UK has called for international action on the issue of medical devices such as oximeters, with questions being asked as to their efficacy with different ethnic groups.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has questioned whether medical devices are equally effective regardless of the patient’s ethnicity, and has ordered an inquiry.
Research has suggested that oximeters, which are clipped to a person’s finger, can overstate the level of oxygen in the blood of people from some ethnic minorities.
UK ministers want to know whether bias could have prevented patients receiving appropriate COVID treatment.
A study published last year by the universities of Leicester and Nottingham suggested that black people were twice as likely as white people to catch coronavirus.
People of Asian heritage were 1.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be infected, the research suggested.
“This is systemic across the world. This is about a racial bias in some medical instruments. It’s unintentional but it exists, and oximeters are a really good example of that,” Javid said during an interview with the BBC.
Asked whether people may have died of COVID-19 as a result of the flaw, Javid said: “I think possibly yes. I don’t have the full facts.”
The review will aim to identify where systematic bias and risk exist with current devices and to recommend how the issues should be tackled in the creation of medical devices from design to use, the UK Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement.
It said it hoped to present initial findings by the end of January.
Javid said he planned to work with other countries to tackle the problem and had already spoken about the issue to his US counterpart.
He added that he had become aware of the problem after looking into why, in Britain, people from black and other minority ethnic backgrounds had been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with higher rates of hospitalisation in intensive care units and of death.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the review should not simply look at equipment, but also “structural issues” within healthcare that affect ethnic minorities.